Soil carbon sequestration study begins

Public lands as carbon sinks ?

We’ve spoken of the potential for our public lands to act as carbon sinks.

When you think about public lands and the value that these places have to serve our efforts to curb global climate change I’d like you to consider a new idea that is as old as dirt ~ passive restoration. Yes, I’m suggesting that part of the answer might be to remove our footprint on those places we can – and in doing so – let the land catch it’s breath.

Just as trees draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, so does the life of soil and other healthy plant communities.  In fact, even in places as arid as the Mojave desert, researchers have found that healthy, undisturbed living-soils may draw as much carbon out of the atmosphere as temperate forests !  Can you imagine ? Resting the land from soil disturbing activities that degrade living-soils and remove vegetation, precluding the living carbon from being recycled back into the soil, ~ preserving our natural environmental heritage ~ may actually be an important strategy in mitigating climate change – a way to actually and directly take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Perhaps these ideas will be considered in the study recently announced concerning sagebrush communities :

Soil carbon sequestration study beginsCasper Star Tribune

Scientists believe increasing the carbon in soils — a process known as soil carbon sequestration — may help reduce the rise of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere that contribute to global warming


  1. Virginia Avatar

    Brian, I want to thank you for bringing these “obscure” issues to our attention. No one else seems to be calling attention to these types of issues and we all need to be educated about them. Even though they do not trigger an emotional response from most people, it is critical that we learn as much as we can about our environment in order to explain their importance to others. I have quoted your scientific explanations many times to others and I look forward to learning more about what I feel also are “cutting edge” issues. The soil carbon sequestration makes so much sense; why are we just now studying it?

  2. Brian Ertz Avatar

    thanks for your interest – it sure motivates more attention. perhaps it’s sort of odd, but ever since learning about soil while working toward a horticulture degree, i’ve always been giddy about it – it’s charismatic to me, the idea that a teaspoon of soil could harbor more living things than a continent of people – and that their smallest work (micro), collectively, could contribute to some of the most giant benefits (macro) to our world.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I wonder if the clearing away of the desert soils for massive solar farms may not offset the benefit of no carbon dioxide emissions in producing electricity from solar energy?

  4. Virginia Avatar

    My first interest in soils was during another of my seasonal summer jobs when I worked for the BLM with a soil scientist and we ran plots on the soil in an area called the “YU Bench” which is near McCullough Peaks outside of Cody. This was a summer about 2 years into our 7-8 year drought and the soils were in pretty bad shape – also due to the overgrazing by the Hoodoo Ranch which has the land leased from the BLM. At the time. I guess I did not realize how important that work could be, but it confirmed to me that we live in a desert here in Wyoming and I don’t think the BLM has taken good care of these soils for as long as I have been here. In fact, not only have they let the overgrazing continue, but they are now allowing drilling to start out in the Peaks.

  5. todd Avatar

    Hi Brian

    You wrote that “researchers have found that healthy, undisturbed living-soils may draw as much carbon out of the atmosphere as temperate forests.”

    Can I get that reference?


  6. Brian Ertz Avatar

    sure Todd,

    Wohlfahrt et al. 2008, Large annual net ecosystem CO2 uptake of a Mojave Desert ecosystem, Global Change Biology 14, 1475–1487

    and to piggy-back on Ralph’s comment, the irony is that this study cited was done in the Mojave — a place where massive solar-plants are planned to wipe away huge swaths of the carbon-sequestering living soils !

    if you’re interested in other studies that demonstrate compaction of soils depreciating carbon-sequestration, (even rendering them sources of greenhouse gases like nitrous-oxide and methane), or one in China that showed that ungrazed, rested landscapes drew significantly more carbon out of the atmosphere than grazed landscapes –

    Land-use change can lead to changes in soil carbon (C) and
    nitrogen (N) storage. Th is study aimed to determine the impact
    of long-term grazing exclusion (GE) on soil organic C and total
    N (TN) storage in the Leymus chinensis grasslands of northern
    China and to estimate the dynamics of recovery after GE. We
    investigated the aboveground biomass and soil organic C and
    TN storage in six contiguous plots along a GE chronosequence
    comprising free grazing, 3-yr GE, 8-yr GE, 20-yr GE, 24-yr GE,
    and 28-yr GE. Grazing exclusion for two decades increased the
    soil C and N storage by 35.7 and 14.6%, respectively, in the 0-
    to 40-cm soil layer. Th e aboveground net primary productivity
    and soil C and N storage were the highest with 24-yr GE and the
    lowest with free grazing. Th e storage increased logarithmically
    with the duration of GE; after an initial rapid increase after the
    introduction of GE, the storage attained equilibrium after 20
    yr. A logarithmic regression analysis revealed 86.8 and 87.1%
    variation in the soil C storage and 74.2 and 80.7% variation
    in the soil N storage in the 0- to 10-cm and 0- to 40-cm soil
    layers, respectively. Based on these results, we suggest that two
    decades of GE would restore the L. chinensis grasslands from
    being lightly degraded to a stable productive condition with
    good soil C and N storage capacity. Our results demonstrated
    that by implementing GE, the temperate grasslands of northern
    China could facilitate signifi cant C and N storage on decade
    scales in the context of mitigating global climate change.

    it’ll be interesting to see whether the studies underway just now in America even deal with grazed versus not-grazed landscapes — usually these Universities are pretty regressive (the politicians that send home the bacon of Livestock supporters – they don’t like to find pork for universities that might use it to criticize the industry)…

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Brian Ertz